Following the recent American strike on a Syrian military air base, several major American media outlets have used the terms ‘retaliate’ or ‘retaliation’ to describe the operation. But, whatever people’s opinions of the desirability of that strike may be, are those the right words?

New York Times caption, April 7, 2017

Washington Post headline, April 7, 2017

The New Oxford American Dictionary‘s definition of ‘retaliate’ goes like this:

verb [ no obj. ] make an attack or assault in return for a similar attack: the blow stung and she retaliated immediately.
• [ with obj. ] archaic repay (an injury or insult) in kind: they used their abilities to retaliate the injury.

It takes its etymological roots in the Latin talis, meaning ‘such-like’, and the prefix re-. Talis is also at the root of another Latin word, talio, -onis, meaning ‘a punishment or penalty similar to the injury done’, as in the famous talion law, ‘a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye’.

The use of such a word, therefore, seems wrong on two levels, as the American strike did not occur in return for a similar attack. On the one hand, last Tuesday’s Syrian operation did not target the U.S., which disqualifies the ‘in return’ element contained in the prefix re-. On the other, the American strike was not of ‘a similar kind’, as it — thankfully — did not involve chemical weapons.

So what about ‘response’, another frequent word in media accounts of the American operation?

New York Times, April 7, 2017

A probably better-chosen word, although not in its first sense of ‘an answer, a reply’, but rather in the OED’s second sub-definition:

1.b transf. and fig. An action or feeling which answers to some stimulus or influence; spec. in Psychol. (freq. opposed to stimulus), an observable reaction to some specific stimulus or situation; the fact of such reaction.

Interestingly, President Trump did not use either word, preferring instead to insist on the ‘national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons’. In doing so, he may have been avoiding a legally slippery path.